Freaked (1993)

When I revisited Tod Browning’s 1932 silent horror classic Freaks last October, I was struck by how the majority of the story it tells doesn’t play like a horror film at all. Before the titular circus “freaks” band together to avenge a bungled assassination attempt on one of their own, the movie mostly plays like a kind of hangout comedy, preaching an empathetic “We’re all human” message that’s later completely undone by its freaks-as-monsters horror conclusion. The 1993 horror comedy Freaked isn’t exactly a remake of Browning’s film, but it oddly mirrors that exact mix of tones. Continuing the inherent exploitative nature of sideshow freaks as a form of entertainment, Freaked is a morally grotesque work with a toxically shitty attitude towards physical deformity & abnormality, one very much steeped in Gen-X 90s ideological apathy. It’s also an affably goofy hangout comedy packed with a cast of vibrant, over the top characters. Freaked will leave you feeling just as icky as Freaks, although maybe not as intellectually stimulated, and I’m pretty sure that exact effect was entirely its intent.

Alex Winter (best known as Bill S. Preston, Esq.) directs and stars as an Ace Ventura-style ham and a Hollywood douche. It’s as if the evil versions of Bill & Ted from Bogus Journey were the protagonists of a horror comedy and you were supposed to find their Politically Incorrect hijinks hilarious instead of despicable. Along with a fellow wise-cracking asshole and a bleeding heart political protestor (picked up for her looks), Winter’s fictional movie star cad is lured to a crooked sideshow operated by a visibly drunk Randy Quaid. Quaid transforms these three unsavory souls into freaks for his sideshow against their will, where they join the ranks of fellow imprisoned performers in desperate need of a revolt: Bobcat Goldthwait as an anthropomorphic sock puppet, Mr. T as a bearded lady, John Hawkes as a literal cow-boy, Keanu Reeves as a humanoid dog/political revolutionary, etc. There’s also a side plot about an Evil Corporation dabbling in illegal chemical dumping, but Freaked is mostly a mix of special effects mayhem, Looney Tunes wise-cracking, and poorly aged indulgences in racial stereotypes, transphobia, and sexual assault humor.

Freaked is in a weird position as a cultural object. It’s shot like a breakfast cereal commercial and indulges in so much juvenile humor that its best chance for entirely pleasing a newfound audience would be reaching immature preteens with a taste for the macabre. I would never recommend this movie to an undiscerning youngster, though, since its sense of morality is deeply toxic in a 2010s context. (Big Top Pee-wee is both sweeter and somehow stranger, while essentially accomplishing the same tone.) Much like with Freaks, however, there’s plenty to enjoy here once you wince your way past the horrifically outdated social politics. Special effects & creature designs from frequent Brian Yuzna collaborator Screaming Mad George and a psych rock soundtrack from 90s pranksters The Butthole Surfers afford the film a raucous, punk energy. Meta humor about Hollywood as an cesspool teeming with sell-outs (especially in the jokes involving a fictional film series titled Ghost Dude) lands with full impact and colors the freak show plot in an interesting entertainment industry context. Mostly, though, Freaked is simply just gross, which can be a positive in its merits as a creature-driven horror comedy, but a huge setback in its merits as an expression of Gen-X moral apathy. I’m not sure how it’s possible, but it’s just as much of a marred-by-its-time mixed bag as the much more well-respected Tod Browning original.

-Brandon Ledet

The Late, Great Planet Mirth IV: Judgment (2001)

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Welcome to The Late Great Planet Mirth, an ongoing series in which a reformed survivor of PreMillenialist Dispensationalism explores the often silly, occasionally absurd, and sometimes surprisingly compelling tropes, traits, and treasures of films about the Rapture. Get caught up in it with us!

Fear not, Leigh Lewis fans! Despite all appearances, Helen Hannah did not, in fact, die at the end of Tribulation. I mean, she did; she really, really did. The descending blade of that guillotine in V-World was no joke, but the plot of this film required her to be alive, so here she is, back from the dead for the second time (given that she was pretty obviously about to be executed at the end of Apocalypse as well), which is especially impressive given that the Son of Man himself has only done it the once. I’m not about to go all Annie Wilkes here about how she didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie guillotine, though, because this film is where Lewis really gets to shine.The LaLondes could kill her at the end of every film and bring her right back like Aeon Flux and I would still be on board. She’s joined here by some real talent, too, which helps carry the film.

The tagline for Judgment is as succinct as it is hilarious: “The Supreme Court versus The Supreme Being…. Let the trial begin.” Of course, the Supreme Court doesn’t factor into this film at all. Instead, the plot focuses on the attempts of O.N.E.’s World Court to charge Helen Hannah with the worst crime of all: hatred of humanity. Mitch Kendrick (Corbin Bernsen) is a lawyer who is reluctantly drafted into acting has Helen’s defense. Kendrick, who previously lost the case that saw his “Hater” (i.e. Christian) father vilified and executed, is being blackmailed by his ex, the ambitious Victoria Thorne (Jessica Steen). Thorne knows that Mitch never actually took the Mark, and that his is a black market fake; she calls him weak and denigrates him for failing to choose a side. Thorne and Judge Wells (Michael Copeman) provide Mitch with a script to follow for the televised trial, one that will ultimately lead to Helen inevitably being found guilty, but  Kendrick latches onto the idea of prosecuting not Helen, but God himself. Franco Macalusso, AKA the Antichrist, AKA Lucifer (Nick Mancuso) finds this idea fascinating, and he tells Wells and Thorne to throw out their script and let this play out.

It’s as goofy as it sounds, but in a oddly compelling way. Whereas Tribulation  featured both silly Charmed warlocks going around and Force-choking random schizophrenics for knowing too much and a scene where the same Satanist characters chillingly murder an alley full of homeless people in cold blood, Judgment is consistent in its absurdity. The court of law that’s depicted herein is completely bonkers. There’s no disclosure of evidence or witness lists pre-trial, and there’s also no jury, just a single judge who both presides and acts as arbiter. The witnesses that we do see aren’t even there to talk about the forensics of the explosion that destroyed a school bus (as seen in Revelation and mentioned here as evidence of Hater terrorism) or anything that would reasonably appear in a case about one woman’s devotion to a “dangerous” cult (or the culpability of a deity). Instead, we see a five-star general testify as an expert witness about how much less dangerous the world is now that Lucifer has taken dominion, and how many parties the Department of Defense has to plan now that war has become a thing of the past. We also get to see the all-too-brief return of now-soulless Willie Spino (Tony Nappo) as he testifies against his sister. None of the court proceedings reflect the real world at all; the legal system of this world as scripted may as well be predicated on a child’s understanding of how the law works based on seeing a few episodes of Law & Order on a fuzzy, muted television at the laundromat. Somehow, though, it has its own dizzying internal logic, and if you can just accept that and go with it, the film is a lot of fun.

There’s also a secondary plot woven throughout that is virtually irrelevant, although it contains some elements that are genuinely novel within Christian cinema. Selma (Mirium Carvell), the leader of the Hater cell who escaped from the fiery furnace in Revelation, is hiding out with several other secret Christians, including J.T. Quincy (the one and only fool-pitier himself, Mr. T) and his wife. Although this plot is pointless, Mr. T gets a black market Mark of the Beast like Kendrick and enlists a young couple named Danny and Dawn to help them break into the detention facility and rescue Helen. The unique thing about these two is that they are neither Christians nor Antichristians, but unbelievers. And not unbelievers like Stone and Kendrick, whose entire narrative arc is to become a believer, but real people in this world who aren’t sure what the truth is. It’s a real problem in our world that Christians (and people of other faiths, I’m sure, but I’m specifically talking about the PMD Christianity that I was raised in and which birthed this series of films) see those with other beliefs and philosophies not merely as misguided, but as people who surely know the truth (as the PMDs perceive it) and are in constant, intentional denial of it. It’s exactly as patronizing as it sounds, and it’s a genuine surprise that Danny and Dawn are as well rounded as those characters on either side of the Christ/Antichrist debate. Dawn isn’t sure that the stories she’s heard about Hater terrorism are false, and Danny’s starving; neither wants to take the Mark because they’ve seen how it changes people, but without it they have no way of getting food or shelter. Neither Dawn nor Danny gets preached to or is harangued about the need to accept Christ before it’s too late, they’re just accepted by the Christians and housed without the thought of proselytization.

Which isn’t to say that this film passes without a little preaching, but at least it’s presented in a dynamic way. In all three previous films in the Apocalypse series, most of the scenes where you as an audience member are supposed to consider your sins and ponder following Jesus were people sitting in a room and dialoguing at each other; here, the Christian safe house is raided (Thorne planted a tracking device on Kendrick in order to find it) and Selma ends up in the same building as the trial, so she stands and testifies on Helen’s behalf and goes on a diatribe about the evidence for a historical resurrection. It’s a nice scene, not least of all because it gives Jessica Steen the chance to do something other than portray a Powerful Female Attorney as envisioned by the repressed, more misogynistic Christian version of David E. Kelley. That’s spot on for how empowered women are usually portrayed in this genre, but I digress. Mr. T ends up breaking Helen and Selma out after all, and they escape.

There are a few other things going on here that are different from standard Christian movies. For one, our main character is a liar. He lies to his ex, he lies to the judge, he lies to society. The only time he ever seems to be telling the truth is when he and Helen are alone, and he spends most of that time yelling at her about how meaningless her faith is. Corbin Bernsen is the closest thing to a movie star that has graced this series (all deference and love to Margot Kidder, but get real). The man was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe! He was in 171 episodes of L.A. Law, and the Major League film series was very popular in its day. Obviously, he brings the things he learned in the former to this role, so much so that even though I have never seen a single episode of L.A. Law, I could still feel the conviction in his voice every time the word “Objection!” came flying out of his mouth. As a result, he brings a lot of dignity to a role that could otherwise be an exercise in ham-fisted moralizing.

Overall, that’s the best way to think about this film: a surprisingly dignified story about one woman struggling with her faith in the face of certain death, and the way that this faith helps her to move metaphorical mountains. It’s full of continuity issues and plot holes, but it still works, for the most part. Of all the films that I have seen that were created explicitly as propaganda, this is one that actually works (mostly) outside of that context.

Stray observations:

● Steen had previously appeared in Michael Bay’s Armageddon and would later appear in Left Behind: World at War, meaning that she has appeared in three separate franchises about the end of the world (four, if you count early nineties sci-fi TV series Earth 2). She also gives a strong performance here, although a lot of characters talk about her and her ambition with lines dripping with misogyny.

● Nick Mancuso gets to give his best performance yet in this series, as he appears as a character interacting with others throughout. I did laugh when Kendrick called him to the stand and he appeared from around the corner instantaneously, though. His sudden appearance, along with the way that Selma appears in the courtroom, contributes to the stage-like feel of the movie, for better or worse; I found it more amusing than distracting, however, so it was a positive for me.

● There are some continuity errors surrounding how the Mark works; previously it seemed to have a Yeerk-like effect where the bearer of the Mark essentially became a different person with no free will. This time around, bearers of the Mark act outside of (and even contrary to) the will of the Antichrist. Thorne is aware that Kendrick’s Mark is fake, but she uses this to blackmail him instead of just turning him in. When she explains this to Judge Wells, she even mentions that his entry on the Mark-bearer registry is forged; previously, the Mark automatically made you part of the telekinetic hivemind and made you turn on anyone you knew. What makes the least sense, though, is when Kendrick peels off his fake Mark in the courtroom, and Lucifer is surprised. Like, really, Satan? You were fooled by this guy’s fake Mark, a fake Mark of You?

● It’s pretty apparent that this film went through more than one draft, which isn’t always the case in productions like this. The subplot about Mr. T and his friends was obviously a vestigial leftover from an earlier version of the plot, especially given how a scene in their bunker and a scene between Kendrick and Helen is intercut awkwardly, as if trying to break up the bunker plot. The only real impact that they have is presenting Kendrick with evidence, which could have been demonstrated by Selma performing a dead drop somewhere for Kendrick to find. Given that the movie ends with Kendrick’s sacrifice and Helen escaping, it would have been more moving if the subplot was cut completely and Selma had been caught trying to get Kendrick this info. She and Helen could have made their own heroic sacrifices to end the film, instead of them getting out of their cell and the film immediately cutting to credits.

● There are no films in this series that follow Judgment. I have to admit that I’m pretty disappointed in this anticlimactic ending. Of all the films to leave Helen Hannah alive at the end of, why the finale? Part of this might be because Cloud Ten was gearing up production on the film adaptations of Left Behind around this time and were concerned about diluting the brand (such as it is), but creating a film series that is leading up to the reappearance of Jesus but doesn’t even include an inkling of resolution is a horrible choice. Oh well.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond